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Art in Suspended Animation: Ten Best Baltimore Exhibitions of 2020

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I read an article the other day about the ultimate Covid-19 art pivot that gave me hope but also made me throw up in my mouth a little.

The story featured a young musician who had just finished a master’s degree in cello performance. She had a full-time job lined up with an orchestra but it all disappeared with Covid-19 closures. Like many others, she went on unemployment, but (silver lining alert!) started teaching music lessons virtually to a few students to make extra money. She didn’t realize that there were so many kids and adults stuck at home wanting to learn an instrument in their spare time; her teaching schedule quickly filled up and now she is making more money than she would have in the orchestra.

I know that the reader is supposed to view the cellist’s pivot as a miraculous success and to feel #grateful to see an artist earning a decent income during a pandemic, but I don’t see it that way. While I’m glad the cellist is not starving or unhoused, the world is being deprived of her contribution to our cultural heritage, and this matters. Her goal to earn a living through professional performance may have disappeared or been indefinitely postponed for years to come, if we even have live orchestra performances in the future. Not only is the cellist missing the foundational years of her career, in terms of building skills and professional networks—spoiler alert—she is going to be knocked off her ass by self-employment taxes this spring.

Right now, all of us who work in a creative field have been forced to reconcile our long-term vision with short-term issues of survival. Our temporarily closed world, bereft of daily distractions and errands and drinks at the bar, is laid out in grim detail: the lack of any sort of reasonable economic protections, government resources, or a safety net for life-or-death health decisions is so much clearer now. For artists, this was all true before but was easier to ignore because we were all busy with a sense of forward momentum. Now, artists and culture workers are caught in the crosshairs of a health and economic breakdown that renders our professional creative goals irrelevant while our skills are still valuable, just not for their intended purpose. All previous rules and measures of success are now invalid, and there is always room for an art hack or pivot, but online “viewing rooms” instead of exhibitions and fairs and concerts can only go so far.

I don’t know what the best course of action is for an artist during a global pandemic, but I am wondering if survival and relative mental stability are the highest goals we can attain right now. As our world continues to shrink down to bare essentials, I keep searching for a silver lining or gem of wisdom after a year of uncomfortable compression. Although there is a cliché about artists making their most significant discoveries during troubled times, I’m not sure it’s possible to do one’s best creative work in an environment of fear, poverty, loss, and death.

During dark times, art and a continued insistence upon making it provide essential spiritual nourishment that our society needs, whether people realize it or not. Given how difficult it is for so many individuals to pay their bills and put food on the table, making art at all seems like a mirage of a world that no longer exists. Should we attempt to become like the cellist in the cheerful pivot article and use whatever skills we have acquired for practical purposes and embrace a new economic model, or is this type of compromise a trap that we should avoid at all costs?

 

Art Mantra for 2020: Joseph Beuys "I Like America and America Likes Me," 1974

The year 2020 has been a shit sandwich, any way you choose to package it. It’s been a year of sickness and death, of poverty and lost opportunities, of failure and fracture and atrophy and division. It’s been a year of loneliness, longing, and disappointment. For all kinds of artists, especially performing artists and musicians, it’s been a year of tragic circumstances and frustration, and the return to some semblance of normalcy is still nowhere in sight, even with the release of a vaccine. According to health professionals and government officials who believe in science, the worst is still to come, so we all need to continue to hunker down and live in suspended animation until the world is safe for humans again.

What does this mean for the artists who have spent years of their lives in school and decades building professional skills around a vision realized through a medium-specific discipline? Should we all embrace the pivot and compromise our goals? Or do we carry on as we have in the past, determined to mold the world in accordance with our creative vision, because this is what artists do?

Instead of torturing ourselves about our lack of ambition and action, perhaps this time would be better spent resting in order to be a more productive artist in the future. There’s no way to know if it’s more valuable to build up muscle memory and learn new skills or to read novels and take baths. I have no way of knowing if it would be better to watch nature documentaries with my son, instead of all seven seasons of 30 Rock for the third time that he insists upon watching and quoting, which I will admit brings me great pleasure. Figuring out how best to use this time to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future is a giant question mark, even in trying to find a middle ground between extremes.

In the beginning of the pandemic when I got very sick, I became convinced that, as individuals and as a society, we were all learning hard lessons through extreme adversity, prepared to rebuild a better world once it’s all over. But now I’m not so sure. Am I a better, stronger, or wiser person than I was a year ago? I would like to think so, but I don’t even know how to begin to measure this. I’m not convinced our society has learned anything from this sad roller coaster of disinformation and political posturing that was 2020. I see no evidence that those in positions of power have ceded even an inch during this past year of need and inequity, but rather that they have exploited a tragic experience to their own selfish benefit. I want to say that we have all grown more empathetic and wiser, but I’m mostly not seeing it, so I cannot say what this portends for the future of art-making.

I wish my own 2020 experience gave me the wisdom to identify the best path forward for myself, or more generally for artists and those who work in the cultural sector, but the truth is I have no fucking clue. My sage advice: Don’t get sick! Don’t see many people! Stay home, and wear a mask when you go out! I am flummoxed on a daily basis, and anyone who claims differently is full of shit and trying to sell you something. We all want security, certainty, and a sense that we are making progress, but our foundation has disappeared. There is no way to make solid plans right now because the ground under our feet—socially, economically, culturally—is shifting constantly.

Survival, both physical and psychological, continues to be the main goal during the Covid-19 pandemic and any brilliant moments of illumination and inspiration brought about by art and culture are gifts that should be actively appreciated, memorized, and taken to heart. Over the past year, these experiences often came in unexpected packages: an outdoor concert, an online art auction, a three-hour phone call, a walk in the woods, an art magazine, a socially distant visit to an art gallery or museum.

In putting together a top-ten list of Baltimore art in 2020, I considered the exhibitions that made the strongest impression upon me, those which have sustained me through a difficult time, and given me hope for a better future where artists are supported in ways that will yield their best work. As a society, we desperately need great art and artists to challenge and shape our consciousness going forward. It’s unreasonable to expect them to offer a cohesive vision for the future, but they can offer us something more valuable: opportunities to build connections with each other, to discuss, to argue, to dream, to build together.

I really hope that 2021 becomes a year where artists receive much-deserved support and a widening network of opportunities, and that Baltimore grows as a site of cultural production and creative community. I hope that culture producers who need to pivot continue to do so and those others who insist that the purity of their vision must be intact can find the means to make it so. Both options are tenable and equally correct, just not for all artists, and we need all of them! These ten exhibits of 2020 provide a fractured but highly ambitious roadmap, messy and democratic and full of brilliant tangents, the perfect puzzle for a precarious and undetermined future.

Ten Best Baltimore Exhibitions of 2020:

1. Elizabeth Catlett: Artist as Activist at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum’s dynamic exhibition Elizabeth Catlett: Artist as Activist, curated by former museum director Jackie Copeland, tracks the artist’s career and her recurrent themes of the valorized worker and the industrious woman. The exhibition is bookended by portraits signifying laborers in the US and Mexico—and at its center, women, children, and mothers recur as frequent subjects, along with a few recognizable abolitionists and icons. This structure suggests a motivation for wide-ranging solidarity; here there’s no distinction between the labor of raising a family, field work, and movement work. –Rebekah Kirkman

 

2. Rights and Wrongs: Citizenship, Belonging, and the Vote at the Peale at Carroll Mansion

Currently installed at the Peale Museum at Carroll Mansion, the exhibition Rights and Wrongs examines the central question of which American citizens have gotten suffrage, when, and how closely their right to vote has been protected. Securing grant funding from The Awesome Foundation and the Maryland State Arts Council, artist and educator Lauren Adams worked with local artists Erin Fostel, Antonio McAfee, and McKinley Wallace III who each worked within archives to create new artworks about the injustices that marginalized people have historically faced in Baltimore. Alongside the work of Fostel, McAfee, and Wallace, Adams invited Stacey Kirby, Julia Kwon, Precious Lovell, JoAnne McFarland, Gina Gwen Palacios, Jason Patterson, and Sarah Paulsen, artists from across the US whose work is concerned with “personal and political dimensions of citizenship and belonging,” according to the exhibition’s press release. –Suzy Kopf

 

3. Ajay Kurian: Polyphemus at Goucher’s Silber Gallery

Polyphemus, on view at Goucher College’s Silber Art Gallery, is an installation that takes its title from Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Polyphemus is the name of the giant one-eyed cyclops who terrorizes—and eats—Odysseus’s men. In the Silber Gallery, Baltimore-born Kurian recreates the cyclops as an oscillating fan, mounted high on the wall, painted to echo the pupil, iris, and white of the eye. Floating by wire in front of the eye is a toothy smile made of LEDs, casting an ominous glow in the darkened space like the mischievous grin of the Cheshire Cat. Six of these cyclopes are spaced evenly throughout the room, oscillating and scanning, giving the distinct impression that we are being watched at all times, that we are operating within a surveillance state. –Laurence Ross

 

4. Four-way tie between A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art, Online Screening Room, Valerie Maynard, & Jo Smail at The Baltimore Museum of Art

There were too many excellent exhibitions in 2020 at the Baltimore Museum of Art to choose just one and we appreciate the way that the museum created opportunities for our team to visit in a socially distant way and to talk with curators. One favorite is A Perfect Power: Motherhood and African Art, a gorgeous and thought-provoking exhibition organized by Kevin Tervala, BMA Curator of African Art, with Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, Professor of Sociology, Africana, and Women’s Studies, at Stony Brook University, and Jennifer Kingsley, Director of the Museums & Society Program, Johns Hopkins University. Not only were familiar and significant objects from the BMA’s own collection finally exhibited upstairs, adjacent to the Cone and Contemporary wings of the museum, offering significant context along with other objects on loan, but the color story and design of this exhibit, complete with integrated video commentary, offered a multifaceted, global consideration of the history and figure of African mothers that was historically topical and relevant to unfolding current events. –Cara Ober

Additional BMA favorite exhibitions and articles:
° Online Screening Room: What to Do With All That Noise: Stephanie Barber’s 3 Peonies by Jasmine Ledesma, The Treachery of Images: “These Are All Cakes” and Meredith Moore’s “Fortress” by Brandon Soderberg, Dwelling in Our Softness: Abdu Ali Conjures Space for Black, Queer and Trans Artists by Alanah Nichole Davis

° Valerie Maynard: Lost and Found, the first major museum exhibition of this pioneering artist’s 60-year career, Video Conversation and virtual walkthrough with Leslie Cozzi and Angela N. Carroll

° Jo Smail at the BMA and Goya Contemporary: Artist Jo Smail in conversation with curator Kristen Hileman

 

5. Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art, curated by Deborah Willis at MICA

Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art, a group exhibition curated by the scholar, historian, and photographer Dr. Deborah Willis on view in the MICA Fox Building’s Meyerhoff Gallery, bucks against harmful, false valuations of difference, prompting important questions about who those considerations have served, and who has been erased by the absurd constraints of those assessments. The exhibition grapples with both the affects and effects of migration. Photography, installation, and time-based works by 35 artists (including Carrie Mae Weems, Tsedaye Makonnen, Hank Willis Thomas, Leslie King Hammond, Ana Teresa Fernández, Deyane Moses, and Adama Delphine Fawundu) pose compelling considerations about migration through the personal experiences and perspectives of those who have been impacted by it. –Angela N. Carroll

 

6. Zoë Charlton: The Domestic at C. Grimaldis Gallery

Although Charlton exhibited large-scale collages in an exhibition of the same title at School 33, her solo exhibition at C. Grimaldis Gallery this spring featured new work around a theme that has long motivated the artist: an investigation of race, power, and gender, explored through nude human figures in proliferating and allegorical landscapes. Charlton’s Black female figures are surrounded by fantastical floating clouds, flora and fauna, and African masks, images sourced from mass-produced stickers from the scrapbooking aisle in craft stores. The results are pop-cultural explosions that manage to feel sacrosanct and cynical at the same time, like religious icons with a wise-ass sense of humor. Charlton’s ideas are most successfully realized at a large scale, and the C. Grimaldis Gallery offered an immersive environment, an optimal setting for an ambitious vision. I was thrilled that the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC recently acquired one of Charlton’s large-scale collages and am hoping that other museums follow suit. –Cara Ober

 

7. Kim Rice: Inheritance at The Peale

Rice began researching the constructions of race in 2010 and began making art about whiteness specifically in 2014. Her art feels intended to educate a viewer who probably never learned this stuff in school (because even basic US history is suppressed), but it doesn’t read as didactic. With her choice of everyday craft and materials, Rice makes the challenging content more approachable. And though the work is not installed chronologically, there is a clear evolution in the thought and understanding behind these series of works, which could conceivably be explored endlessly. –Rebekah Kirkman

 

8. Karen Yasinsky: One Night Only at Resort

Karen Yasinsky’s show at Resort, One Night Only, explores the visual languages of silent film stars and stand-up comedians. Across the three films and numerous still images, Yasinsky’s lens is focused on Aidan, an actress and video artist who has been Yasinsky’s primary subject and collaborator since 2018. In counterpoint, One Night Only is interspersed with details of Paul Outerbridge’s infamous studio nudes, rephotographed and altered by Yasinsky. Outerbridge’s pioneering color photography provided an early influence for Yasinsky, and her interventions play with both the sensuality and distance of the source images. Throughout the show, Yasinsky’s still images are self-detourned with cobwebs, cartoon heads, and brightly-colored dots. –Rahne Alexander

 

9. Surfacing at MONO Practice

As soon as I saw the quilt-like postcard for Surfacing, the new group show at MONO Practice, I felt an urgent need to see this exhibition. Organized by New York-based guest curators Alex Paik and Mark Joshua Epstein, the exhibit presents the work of six artists from across the country—Sarah Bednarek, Ricki Dwyer, Glendalys Medina, Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Cory Siegler, and Patricia Zarate—who employ intricate patterns through a variety of tactile materials that are often more craft- and design-related than contemporary art tends to be and, as such, felt easy to connect to and appreciate. After my visit to the gallery, I continued to think about why I find patterns to be so satisfying. Perhaps it is simply an extension of beauty or cleverness, a concept and practice proven to motivate human beings to innovate, procreate, and prosper? In this context, the idea of “surface” is a seductive introduction to deeper ideas about what humans value across cultures and history. –Cara Ober

 

10. Jackie Milad: It Means Desert, Desert at Loyola University Julio Gallery

A hand-dyed, pink-tinted canvas pinned to the wall, ripped at its center like an aging bedsheet lying out on the lawn to dry, provides the ground for Jackie Milad’s recent painting “Gold Bars” (2020). Bright yellow fringe gives shade to a smattering of snake-like lines, evil eyes, emojis, text, and patterns that scatter and accumulate like dust across the work and peer out from under layers of overpainting and rosy thread. Offering a cluster of different processes of mark and labor, Gold Bars gathers a variety of multidisciplinary moves into one totality, like the practice of musical sampling mobilized for visual means.

This painting forms the basis of a new series of mixed-media works from Milad’s solo exhibition at Julio Fine Arts Gallery at Loyola University Maryland in February 2020, where bold, symphonic constellations of colors, symbols, and historical strategies—from collage and archival methods to handicrafts and graffiti—form a palimpsest of oppositional responses available to artists critical of the medium- and genre-specific silos that so often frame contemporary art. Through a rich accumulation of visual, textual, and symbolic content, Milad invites us to struggle with the act of making meaning as well as our desire to know, understand, translate, and thus take ownership of her pieces and their many disparate elements. – Jordan Amirkhani (from the BmoreArt print journal Issue 10)

 

2020 Honorable Mentions:

Hot Sauce Artist Collective’s Pop-Up Exhibitions

In August I was so excited to learn that BOPA and Hot Sauce Artist Collective were hosting a series of outdoor pop-up art exhibitions in Station North, in the spirit of Artscape, but on a much smaller scale. I visited the pop-up in the lot across from the Charles Theater twice, and I wish I had attended every single weekend. The ability to see art in public around other art lovers was enriching, and being able to walk to these pop-ups also felt special. These temporary exhibits were outside of my Covid routine and they were beautiful. Suddenly, I felt more connected to other people in Baltimore. The members of the Hot Sauce Artist Collective—Alpha Massaquoi, Jr., Italo De Déa, Kayla Fryer, and Alexandre Edoh Yao Amegah—are on fire with energy and enthusiasm for their fellow artists. They’re shining examples of artists of color in Baltimore making their own lanes, forging their own paths. They are printmakers, educators, neighbors, innovators, and curators, and they are using their platform to bring outdoor art and culture events to different neighborhoods in Baltimore City. –Teri Henderson

 

The Saint Francis Missal at The Walters Art Museum

In an era of viral memes, Twitter rants, and seemingly infinite emojis, can an 800-year-old, hand-lettered book composed of goat skins still hold its own? Indeed it can—and The St. Francis Missal offers a compelling demonstration of how, and why. Despite its modest scale and narrow focus, this show—staged in a single room on the museum’s third floor, and centered on one of the most historically significant objects in the collection—has a centrifugal force and a moving, lingering potency. It’s at once a blunt antidote to the ephemeral half-life of digital material and an affecting illustration of what Walter Benjamin famously termed aura. –Kerr Houston

 

The 2020 Sondheim Prize Finalists Exhibition

I think we can all agree that art functions most effectively when one’s concept and media are synonymous, when the language and history of one’s materials add depth and meaning to the work. Although the distinction of being a Sondheim finalist remains intact, viewing this year’s exhibition digitally is a compromise—but it’s the correct response to a cultural landscape decimated by COVID-19. That said, digital media is a medium, it’s not neutral, and whether you make paintings or build installations or curate interpersonal experiences, when you engage through digital media, your work becomes digital art. This year’s Sondheim jurors, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator at the New Museum in New York, Nona Faustine, a visual artist whose photographs focus on history, identity, and representation, and Diya Vij, Associate Curator of Public Programs at the High Line in New York, selected six finalists: LaToya Hobbs, Hoesy Corona, strikeWare (Mollye Bendell, Jeffrey Gangwisch, and Christopher Kojzar), Miguel Braceli, Muriel Hasbun, and Phylicia Ghee. Their work is available for public viewing in online galleries provided by BOPA through Kunstmatrix, a virtual reality app. –Cara Ober

 

Juneteenth and MAWU: A Durational Performance Designed by Ada Pinkston

Curated and led by Ada Pinkston, MAWU: TheEndisTheBeginningIstheEnd is an eight-hour durational performance that combines the history of Juneteenth with the legacy of Lucy Parsons, the revolutionary labor organizer who fought for the eight-hour workday and a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, a woman called “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.”

Pinkston, the co-director of LabBodies, organized MAWU as part of her fellowship at VisArts. According to Pinkston, MAWU “is a ritual, in honor of Lucy Parsons, and in honor of a lot of other women that came before us whose names we don’t know, and all the other people who are still continuing to do this work towards abolition of the prison-industrial complex.” This ritual carries on the legacy of the struggle and fight for freedom that mirrors the origins of Juneteenth. –Teri Henderson

 

Header Image: Joseph Beuys, "I Like America and America Likes me," 1974

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